As much as it went against his nature, he had everyone sleep in separate cots. It felt strange not having any warm bodies curled up next to him. Rien woke well before dawn. Mikaere was awake, having taken the last watch. He still couldn’t get over just how tiny that man was. Even the twins were taller.
They’d brought most of their gear in with them. Mikaere and Efua had clearly expected them to come with Lammert, as they’d had horses and food enough for everyone. His own gear, however, was distressingly light. The girls had brought the jewels he’d given them, and he’d packed others as well, to trade for what they might need. It had seemed a smarter idea than to try to pack for every contingency.
He’d forgotten to pack himself a bow. Not that he really minded sticking to the axe and letting the girls do the shooting, but from time to time someone needed to die and insisted on standing all the way over there. Rien shrugged, and walked over to the bundle of extra weaponry Lammert’s people had brought with them.
“What are you doing?” Mikaere frowned as he caught sight of Rien.
“Borrowing one of your longbows.” Rien untied the bundle.
“I will get one for you.” Mikaere started to rise, stumbling out of his chair a little. Around them, the others started to stir.
Rien pulled back the woven blanket that had been wrapped around the bundle of weapons, and then stared in shock. A shorter spear, one made of a gleaming silvery metal, was at the center of the bundle. A faintly glowing emerald was set into curved blade, and ornate runes were inlaid into the haft in a coppery metal. Rien looked up at where his brother was rising. “You stole it?” He shook his head. “You actually stole it?”
“Rien…” Lammert took a deep breath.
Laughter escaped him. “You stole the Scepter of Asrael back.” Rien pulled the woven blanket back over it. “Brother, that’s…” He ran a hand down his face as he kept laughing. “Nice to know you aren’t above a little petty vengeance.” He rolled his eyes. “She’s going to be furious when she finds out.”
“We should get moving. It will be dawn soon.” Lammert ran a hand through his close-cropped hair.
“Right.” Rien went back over to his side of the room. Maela and Bast were already up and dressing. Rachel was up, sitting on the side of her cot. There was a small frown on her beautiful face. “Lovely, is everything alright?” He put a hand on her shoulder.
“I…” Rachel looked up at him, then smiled. “Just pondering.”
“As long as it is only pondering.” He bent and kissed her. “You don’t have to do all the worrying.”
“Yes, Master Rien.” She let him pull her to her feet.
Another look over his shoulder. Still nothing. Bastien frowned. He looked again. Still nothing. “Stop it.” Rien said from where his horse was next to Bastien’s.
“Nobody is chasing us out of the Vale.” Bastien looked over his shoulder again. “Rien, nobody is chasing us.”
“Isn’t that a good thing, Bast?” Maela glanced at him.
“It’s a thing that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.” Bastien frowned. “They knew we were there. They had time to get people into position.” He looked over his shoulder one more time. “So why is nobody chasing us out of the Vale?”
“They are preparing an ambush a short way ahead.” Mikaere shrugged. He pointed. “Where road narrows.”
“Oh.” Bastien relaxed. “Rien and I didn’t come by the road the first time we visited the Vale.”
“He tells you there is an ambush coming and you stop worrying?” Rien turned to stare at him.
“Rien, consider what generally happens to people who try ambushing us?” Bastien raised an eyebrow. Rien snickered. “My point exactly. It’s the unknown that worries me.”
“If we know we are going to be ambushed over the next rise…” Rachel frowned. “Why are we still on the road?”
“That’s a good point.” Rien nodded. “Lammert, if we know we are going to be ambushed over the next rise, why are we still on the road?”
“Because you are on the road, and we are following you.” Lammert turned toward him. “Are you claiming you do not have a plan to deal with the upcoming ambush?”
“I…” Rien stared at him. “You were just going to follow me into an ambush you knew was coming?”
“Is there a reason I should not trust your judgment of a situation, Marinus?” Lammert gave him a level look.
“Uh…” Rien took a deep breath. “Well that is the logical place for the ambush. I was going to have us break off the road just before the next rise, and circle around to take them from behind. But maybe it’s better if we uh…” He glanced at Bastien. “Just skip the fighting part. Go the way Bast and I came, through Whitehallow. Solsthriem patrols it, so Rutger won’t be able to have any large bands.”
“You’re suggesting skipping the fighting part?” Bastien gave him a disbelieving look.
“Rutger has fallback points.” Rien shook his head. “Right now, we don’t. Someone gets hurt worse than a potion can handle then Efua has to try to treat them on the move and if it’s her that gets hurt we are in deep shit. They’ve got supply lines. We don’t. We don’t even know how many men they have. If that ambush is knights with crossbows? You’re the only one with enough armor to possibly make it through the first volley.” He sighed. “Yeah. We are skipping the fighting part.”
“And as a bonus…” Bastien shrugged. “It’s pretty much the last thing anyone who knows you would expect.”
“This is…” Rien shifted his horse to leave the trail. “Actually causing me physical pain.”
“Want me to kiss it and make it better?” Rachel grinned.
When they’d passed through the first time, it had been mid spring. Now it was nearly the start of autumn. The first time he’d been returning a hero. Now he was… Rien sighed. He accepted the tea Rachel brought him, then pulled her into his lap. She giggled as he nuzzled her neck. They’d made camp early rather than end up still in the gorge at nightfall.
On the other side of the small fire, Maela was sitting with Efua, paying rapt attention to the older woman’s words. Bast had convinced Mikaere to demonstrate some fighting techniques, and the two men were currently sparring. Lammert was leaning against a tree, his arms folded and his eyes closed. He thought his brother might be asleep. He frowned a little as he caught Efua giving Lammert a worried look.
Rien looked at the woman in his lap. Rachel’s eyes were just a little bluer than her sister’s. Maela had a dash of green around her pupils. The easiest way, though, to tell them apart was to simply close his eyes. Rachel melted into his arms, while Maela arched a little. They both carried a floral scent from their lotions and soaps, but Maela’s scent was softer. A small smile came to his face. On the road, Bast had managed to avoid having the girls bath him and no longer smelled of flowers himself.
He shrugged, then stood, picking Rachel up as he did. She put her arms around his neck as he carried her a bit away from camp. Not too far, just in case, but enough to give them some privacy. Rachel wasn’t as practiced a lover as Maela, but made up for it with a delighted enthusiasm. He bent his head to taste her breasts, smiling as he elicited a gasp from her. Then she shifted to straddle him, arching her back as she rode him. He ran his hands up her sides, luxuriating in the feel of her soft skin.
When they came within moments of each other, she collapsed atop him. He pulled her close, holding her gently tucked in next to him as they lay watching the sunset. “I’m sorry I have dragged you and your sister into danger.”
“It is an adventure, Master Rien.” Her hand caressed his chest. “I will go anywhere with you.”
Her hand was soft in his when he caught it and brought it to his lips. “I just dislike the thought of you two in harm’s way.”
“You will protect me, Master Rien.” She smiled up at him.
“Yes.” He kissed her hand again. “I will.” He smiled before reaching up and brushing fingers through her hair. “Though I have not forgotten that you also protected me. Racing across a battlefield that contained a rampaging dragon…” He kissed her. “You are brave, Lovely.” He trailed a hand down her arm.
“I am yours, Master Rien.” She gazed up at him.
“Yes.” He kissed her again. “You are.”
They were technically over the border before they ran into real trouble. Not Wilders. Dozens of armored men on horseback, wearing no colors. Not knights. Mercenaries, and heavily armed. He doubted the light crossbows the girls carried would so much as dent their armor. Rien apparently drew the same conclusion. “We’ll not stand a chance in the open.”
“Ride for the pass.” Lammert adjusted his grip on his horse’s reins before nodding in the correct direction. “We are close.”
“You heard him.” Rien jerked his head in the same direction. “Move.”
Even with their gear, their horses were carrying lighter loads. The problem was that the knights appeared willing to run their own horses into the ground. “They are going to catch us.”
“My contact will be waiting.” Lammert shook his head.
“Will he back us up?” Rien shouted back.
“That is the plan.” Lammert nodded.
“Well…” Bastien shifted his horse so he was between the girls and the oncoming knights. “At least we have a plan.”
If he’d been the one that had chosen their path, how the hell could Lammert’s contact know to meet — Rien saw a crossbow bolt go whizzing past him. “I think they are in range.”
“Not enough to aim properly.” Bast’s voice responded.
“Around that outcropping.” Rien pointed. “That’s a defensible position. We can…”
“Lammert?” Rien glanced at him.
“Trust me, Marinus.” Lammert nodded. “Keep riding.”
He gave a frustrated growl, but called the order. “Keep riding.” He winced as he passed their defensible position. Ahead was a small ravine. It was going to severely limit their options, forcing them to keep fleeing in the same direction. He gritted his teeth, shooting another glance at Lammert, and kept riding.
His worse fears were realized just a bit further in. Someone had piled brush to block the path. “We’re trapped.” Rachel’s voice sounded terrified.
“Blood and ashes.” Rien pulled his horse to a stop. He looked behind him to see the mercenaries coming up behind them. “Weapons out, they’ll not take us without a —” From the cliffs above, arrows and rocks started raining down. Rien blinked as the mercenaries began falling. “Fight?”
Before the mercenaries could retreat from the sudden rout they were facing, knights appeared behind them. These ones wore colors. Actual knights, not mercenaries. He yanked out his axe as the surviving mercenaries decided they had a better chance of fleeing through his group than the newcomers.
Bastien caught a sword on his shield, then reached up to pull the mercenary off the horse. Mikaere actually leapt onto a horse behind one of the mercenaries, driving one of his knives down into the small gap between breastplate and helmet. Then he shoved the corpse off the horse.
The newcomers wore the Duke’s colors. His colors. A small smile came to his face. The knights at the castle may have died in the ambush, but there had been many not present during the attack. And now they were getting a little payback. Taken by surprise and realizing they were now both outnumbered and outmatched, many of the surviving mercenaries were throwing down their weapons and surrendering. He lowered his own blade, then looked toward Lammert. “Your contact?”
Lammert nodded. “I needed a man whose honor I could trust.” He shrugged. “I found one.”
“Bastien?” The leader of the knights came toward him, yanking off his helmet. “Bastien.”
He stared a moment, then his face broke into a wide smile. “Father.”